Gate crashing the school network

 

Where will you find the best parenting advice, gossip, information and friendship? There’s no need to go back to school – it’s the school gates where all the action happens, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

WHEN MY eldest child started school, I worked full-time outside the home and while I did the drop-off, I was rarely able to collect him. For most people in the mornings it is a case of “dump the kids and run”, but the pick-up is a more prolonged and sociable affair.

The odd time I could be there, I found those huddles of other parents at the school gate quite intimidating. I never felt like I belonged in the ranks of “proper mums” who were there day after day, comfortably trading play dates, discussing what they were making for dinner and where they were going for the mid-term break.

I would scan the chattering cliques for a friendly face who might give me a way into conversation or stand apart and feel self-conscious – until the children started to stream out and provide a welcome interruption.

Yet this curious social network of people drawn together by their children fascinated me. Having gone to a junior school in the city centre, where as infants we sat cross-legged on the floor of the corridor outside our classroom waiting for our mothers to come in and retrieve us, I was, believe it or not, in my 30s before I first encountered a lunchtime crowd on a pavement outside a national school. I wondered what on earth all those women were doing.

Not until you become a parent are you invited to join the ritual. Then it is a bit like being back at school yourself, wanting to fit in and feeling over-awed by the good-looking “queen bee” who effortlessly gathers people around her.

“You hang onto the same people,” agrees PR executive Carmel Doyle, whose two older children attend St Fiachra’s junior and senior national schools in Beaumont, north Dublin. “It’s kind of funny that we know each other through the children, so you’ll get an introduction like ‘You’re Tony’s mam, aren’t you?’ or ‘Hi, I’m so and so’s mum ’, and that’s how I have people saved in my phone – Vicky’s mum, Matthew’s mum, etc.”

If she ends up standing on her own, she takes out her mobile phone to find somebody in her contacts to talk to and “look important”, Doyle jokes, instead of feeling like a spare part.

She envies the parents who manage to show up looking well-groomed, glamorous and calm, “when I’m standing there in my jeans, runners and raincoat for all weathers – on the run as usual”.

There is no doubt people notice what you’re wearing, she adds, because they look at her twice when she is in her “suit work clothes” straight after a meeting and ask her if she is working.

Her husband, Gerry Martin, a martial arts instructor, usually does the school pick-ups and, although women are still in the majority, he has noticed increasing numbers of men. In the early days, he would look for other fathers to talk to, but now he chats to men and women equally.

They are fleeting encounters with the same crowd of people, repeated every day. “You talk to them, but you never get to know them,” he remarks.

As brief as they are, these daily meetings can be a valuable source of information, advice and a stepping stone to friendships – as I was to find out when I became a “regular”.

“The school bus took some of that away from me,” says Jill McHale, co-founder of mykidstime.ie, whose daughters have moved to Kilcolgan Educate Together in Co Galway and now qualify for school transport.

However, she still makes an appearance every second day, alternating with another mother to collect her youngest daughter who comes out before the bus.

With many more children being bussed to and from school in rural areas, the “school gate network” is at its strongest in urban areas.

And while of course it includes dads, childminders, grandparents and other assorted adults, it is still mums who dominate.